Micellar technology detects SARS-CoV-2 in the air

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers have developed micellar technology that can detect tiny amounts of SARS-CoV-2 in the air. This new capability could provide invaluable surveillance systems for detecting viral contamination in healthcare facilities and beyond. Micelles are similar to liposomes in that they are both like tiny lipid sacs. In this case, the researchers incorporated molecularly imprinted polymer molecules into the wall of the micelles. These molecularly imprinted molecules can bind to the viral spike protein. Upon viral binding, the polymer molecules rupture the micelle and spill its contents. These include a salt that can cause a change in the electronic signal, allowing the system to identify viral binding.

COVID-19 is the gift that keeps on giving. While our societal response to the virus could best be described as “mixed,” our technological response has been extremely impressive. From new vaccine technologies to sophisticated diagnostic tests, these innovations will benefit us over the long term. This latest advance goes in a similar direction — a highly sensitive surveillance technology that can detect tiny amounts of the virus floating in the air.

Potential applications for the system include wall-mounted units or devices integrated into ventilation systems in healthcare facilities. The technology is based on molecular imprinting, in which polymers are engineered in such a way that they can bind to specific biological molecules such as enzymes or, in this case, the viral spike protein.

When specially crafted micelles (pepper-sized particles, left) interact with a molecular analogue of the virus that causes Covid (right), the micelles explode, ejecting their contents at speeds of 200 miles per hour. The resulting yellowish-brown cloud is part of an electronic signal that the virus is present. (Video by Caleb Allen | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

The PNNL researchers developed such imprinted polymer receptors and incorporated them into the wall of micelles. The micelles are loaded with a salt, and when the virus binds to polymeric receptors in their wall, they rupture and release the salt. This causes a change in the electrical signal detected by the system, allowing the technology to very sensitively detect a tiny number of virus particles. In fact, the system is so sensitive that researchers had a hard time determining its lower limit of detection.

“There is a need for this type of low-cost detection system,” said Lance Hubbard, a researcher involved in the study. “Perhaps it could be implemented in schools, or in hospitals or emergency rooms before patients have been fully screened — anywhere that you need to know right away that the virus is present.”

Excitingly, the system could also be adapted to detect other pathogens, potentially ushering in a new era in which dangerous airborne diseases in busy spaces are identified and contained before they can spread widely and cause damage.

Study in journal MRS communication: Detection of SARS-COV-2 by functionally imprinted micelles

Via: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


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